Global Civil Society

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= The concept posits the existence of a social sphere, a global civil society, above and beyond national, regional, or local societies. [1]


John Keane:

Global civil society is a vast, interconnected, and multi-layered social space that comprises many hundreds of thousands of self-directing or nongovernmental institutions and ways of life. It can be likened—to draw for a moment upon ecological similes—to a dynamic biosphere. This complex biosphere looks and feels expansive and polyarchic, full of horizontal push and pull, vertical conflict, and compromise, precisely because it comprises a bewildering variety of interacting habitats and species: organisations, civic and business initiatives, coalitions, social movements, linguistic communities, and cultural identities. All of them have at least one thing in common: across vast geographic distances and despite barriers of time, they deliberately organise themselves and conduct their cross-border social activities, business, and politics outside the boundaries of governmental structures, with a minimum of violence and a maximum of respect for the principle of civilised power-sharing among different ways of life.

To liken global civil society to a vast biosphere that stretches to every corner of the earth is to underscore both its great complexity and, as we shall see, its vulnerability to internal and external interference. Just as nearly every part of the earth, from the highest mountains to the deepest seas, supports life, so too global civil society is now found on virtually every part of the earth’s surface. To be sure, everywhere it is tissue-thin, just like the natural biosphere, which resembles a paper wrapping that covers a sphere the size of a football; and its fringes, where ice and permafrost predominate, are virtually uninhabited. In the interior of the Antarctic, only restricted populations of bacteria and insects are to be found; and even on its coasts there are very few living inhabitants. Global civil society is similarly subject to geographic limits: whole zones of the earth—parts of contemporary Afghanistan, Burma, Chechnya, and Sierra Leone, for instance—are no-go areas for civil society, which can survive only by going underground. But in those areas of the earth where it does exist, global civil society comprises many biomes: whole areas, like North America and the European Union, characterised by specific animals and plants and climatic conditions. Each biome in turn comprises large numbers of living ecosystems made up of clusters of organisms living within a nonliving physical environment of rocks, soil, and climate. These ecosystems of global civil society—cities, business corridors, and regions, for instance—are interconnected. And they are more or less intricately balanced through continuous flows and recycling of efforts among, as it were, populations of individuals of the same species, which thrive within communities, such as smaller cities, that are themselves embedded within non-living geographic contexts.

Biospheric similes are helpful in picturing the contours of global civil society, but they should not be overextended, if only because global civil society is not simply a naturally occurring phenomenon. Although it is naturally embedded within a terrestrial biosphere, global civil society is an ensemble of more or less tightly interlinked biomes that are in fact social processes. The populations, communities, and ecosystems of global civil society comprise flesh and blood, symbol-using individuals, households, profit-seeking businesses, not-for-profit nongovernmental organisations, coalitions, social movements, and cultural-religious groups. Its biomes feed upon the work of charities, lobby groups, citizens’ protests, small and large corporate firms, independent media, trade unions, and sporting organisations: bodies like Amnesty International, Sony, the Catholic Relief Services, the Federation of International Football Associations, Transparency International, the International Red Cross, the Ford Foundation, News Corporation International, and the Indigenous Peoples Bio-Diversity Network. Such bodies lobby states, bargain with international organisations, pressure and bounce off other nonstate bodies, invest in new forms of production, champion different ways of life, and engage in direct action in distant local communities: for instance, through ‘capacity-building’ programmes that supply jobs, clean running water, sporting facilities, hospitals, and schools. In these various ways, the members of global civil society help to conserve or to alter the power relations embedded in the chains of interaction linking the local, regional, and planetary orders. Their cross-border networks help to define and redefine who gets what, when, and how in the world. Of great importance is the fact that these networks have the power to shape new identities, even to stimulate awareness among the world’s inhabitants that mutual understanding of different ways of life is a practical necessity, that we are being drawn into the first genuinely transnational order, a global civil society.

Defined in this way, the ideal-type concept of global civil society invites us to improve our understanding of the emerging planetary order, to think more deeply about it, in the hope that we can strengthen our collective powers of guiding and transforming it. This clearly requires sharpening up our courage to confront the unknown and to imagine different futures. And it most definitely obliges us to abandon some old certainties and prejudices grounded in the past. The words ‘global civil society’ may be said to resemble signs that fix our thoughts on winding pathways that stretch not only in front of us but also behind us. To utter the words ‘global civil society’, for instance, is to sup with the dead, with an early modern world in which, among the educated classes of Europe, ‘world civil society’ meant something quite different than what it means, or ought to mean, today. Just how different our times are can be seen by dwelling for a moment on this older, exhausted meaning of ‘world civil society’." (

Please note:

"The earlier terms ‘world civil society’ and ‘international society’ still have their champions,5 but from the standpoint of the new concept of global civil society their ‘governmentality’ or state-centredness are today deeply problematic. Neither the classical term societas civilis nor the state-centric concept of ‘international society’ is capable of grasping the latter-day emergence of a nongovernmental sphere that is called ‘global civil society’. [2]


Ronaldo Munck:

"For me, one of the underlying conceptual problems in this call is the reliance on the notion of global civil society, which I (and others) have critiqued at length elsewhere ( ). Global civil society (GCS) in contemporary guise (See, for example, John Keane's Democracy and Civil Society or Mary Kaldor's Global Civil Society: An Answer to War) is based on universalist moral norms and values. This normative vision owes much to the work of Habermas, in particular the importance of communicative dialogue to fulfill the promise of the European Enlightenment. Thus, GCS is an ideal or virtual space, quite distinct from the actually existing civil societies around the world. This normative space is characterized by non-instrumental dialogue and ethical principles. It eschews all that smacks of self-interest and, of course, the merest hint that force might play a role in progressive social change and democratization. Reflecting its origins in Eastern European oppositional discourse pre-1989, this view of GCS is deeply imbued with the notion of “anti-politics,” the rejection of all state-oriented or party or mass politics in favour of an ethical, moral, and individualistic conception of the good politics.

I have no problem with that, but it is not a global perspective. It cannot be the basis for a World Political Party because it does not reflect the politics of the global South in any way." (


* Book. John Keane. Global Civil Society.


"In this timely book, John Keane tracks the recent development of a big idea with fresh potency - global civil society. Keane explores the contradictory forces currently nurturing or threatening its growth, and he shows how talk of global civil society implies a political vision of a less violent world, founded on legally sanctioned power-sharing arrangements among different and intermingling forms of socio-economic life. Keane’s reflections are pitted against the widespread feeling that the world is both too complex and too violent to deserve serious reflection.

Amid fears of terrorism, rising tides of xenophobia, and loose talk of ‘antiglobalisation', John Keane mounts a defence of global civil society, stressing the need for new democratic ways of living. His book traces the historical origins, present-day meanings and political potential of the idea, and how it is linked with such developments as turbocapitalism, social movements and the political institutions of ‘cosmocracy'. Challenging the silence and confusion within much of contemporary literature on globalisation and global governance.

Keane's provocative reflections draw upon a variety of scholarly sources to breathe life into contemporary political thinking, in search of new political answers to new global problems."

More Information

  1. sample chapter via

=More Information

  1. Global Civil Society? - Chapter 2, pp. 23-47, published in Helmut Anheier, Marlies Glasius, and Mary Kaldor (eds.), Global Civil Society 2001, Oxford University Press, 2001. [3]
  2. Yearbook 2001: Global Civil Society 2001. Anheier, Helmut, Marlies Glasius and Mary Kaldor (eds.) [4]
  3. The Internet and Global Civil Society. John Naugthon.